arrived at a parent-teacher conference for their 8-year-old daughter Kate last spring hoping to discuss some troublesome teasing on the playground.
They spent the 20-minute meeting listening to Kate talk about what she was doing in first grade instead. While Ms. Crowder enjoyed watching Kate, having a child present at a parent-teacher conference can be awkward: “It’s really hard to discuss social issues when your kid is sitting right there,” she says. She and her husband waited until a later event at the Houston school to mention the playground problem to Kate’s teacher, who quickly resolved it.
Some educators are rethinking the parent-teacher conference. More students are attending and sometimes even leading fall conferences, starting even in the youngest grades.
The shift is gradual, accelerating in the past few years. It reflects a growing emphasis on what educators call personalized learning—tailoring students’ work to their individual needs and interests, and pressing them to take responsibility for mastering agreed-upon skills. The aim is to spawn lifelong learners who can adapt nimbly to change.
The format can be jarring at first for parents. “The first time you do it, it’s a little disconcerting. You’re wondering, ‘why am I going to school to have a student-led conference with you when I could just talk to you at home?’ ” says
of Surprise, Ariz., president of the 20,000-member Arizona PTA.
But after participating in student-led conferences starting in elementary school for her son Andy, who is now 16, Ms. Simek says she was pleased to see how proud he was of his work with other students on group projects. Letting students lead “gives your child a chance to show you the personality they have at school, and who they are when they’re away from you,” she says.
Some schools have students attend all parent-teacher conferences. Others allow teachers to decide whether students are present. Students often lead, but sometimes just take part. Principals at public schools in Arlington, Va., began embracing student-led conferences about five years ago, starting in fourth or fifth grade, a school district spokeswoman says. About half of the district’s 28 elementary and middle schools now have students take the lead. Some private schools have included middle- and high-school students in parent-teacher conferences, but many are extending the practice to lower grades.
Teachers begin preparing for these sessions weeks in advance. They help students set learning goals, make plans to reach them and understand what their work will look like after they’ve succeeded, says
a Castle Rock, Colo., professional-development consultant to schools and co-author with
Mary Jane O’Connell
of a 2015 book on student-led learning. Students also collect samples of their drafts and finished work in notebooks, digital files, portfolios or posters to show their parents.
a fifth-grade teacher at Lone Tree Elementary School in Lone Tree, Colo., says more parents attend student-led conferences because their children get excited about leading the conferences.
And students sometimes think more deeply about problems when they describe them with both their teacher and their parents present, she says. When one fifth-grader complained about conflicts he was having with other students, he had a eureka moment. The student realized he was fueling the tensions by always insisting on doing things his own way in games.
says she had a similar epiphany when her 11-year-old daughter Eliza declared herself “bad in math” during a student-led conference two years ago. Eliza was more anxious about math than she had realized, she says. Both she and Ms. Marchman-Twete reassured Eliza that many students have similar problems and she wasn’t as far behind as she feared, Ms. Lumaye says. They agreed on some exercises Eliza could do with Ms. Lumaye’s help at home. She has since gained confidence.
Many teachers see traditional conferences with parents as stressful, tiring and time-consuming, research shows. Anxious parents closely monitor every word the teacher says and try to show they’re good parents by criticizing their child before the teacher does, says
an associate professor of communication at the University of New Hampshire, who has analyzed videos of the conversations.
A student’s presence “changes the dynamic tremendously,” Dr. Pillet-Shore says, shifting the focus away from the parent.
Parents can help by focusing on what the student is learning, rather than grades, and praising the student’s effort. Most important, experts say, is for parents to ask, “What can I do to help you meet your goals?”
Student-led conferences can go awry if parents focus on disappointing grades, join the teacher in criticizing the student and demand to know why he or she isn’t doing better, says Ms. O’Connell, a Sedalia, Colo., professional-development consultant. This can leave a student feeling deflated and wanting nothing more than to get everyone off his back, she says.
who teaches fifth grade at Marin Country Day School in Corte Madera, Calif., says student-led conferences help ensure that parents and teachers are all getting the same story from the student. A student might pretend at school that he’s managing his work just fine, then have an emotional meltdown about it at home.
Ms. Redford saves 10 minutes at the end of student-led conferences for parents to speak with her privately about a child’s social skills, friendships or family issues. “That’s the most valuable part for me,” says
a Tiburon, Calif., parent of two former students of Ms. Redford’s, Andy, 12, and Sydney, 14. “I get to know what she really thinks, and I get to tell her what’s going on outside the classroom.”
When Your Child Leads the Parent-Teacher Conference
Here are nine tips on how to help the school meeting go well:
- Let your child take the lead.
- Ask her to show some of her work.
- Look for and comment on signs of progress.
- Ask what she’s most proud of.
- Ask what her goals are for the term, semester or year.
- Ask what you can do to help your child meet her goals.
- Ask for an explanation of standards or goals you don’t understand.
- Praise effort rather than grades.
- Save sensitive family or social topics for a private meeting with the teacher.
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Write to Sue Shellenbarger at Sue.Shellenbarger@wsj.com